In the award travel word, so much of the focus is on flying premium cabins on the world’s best airlines. Whether it is Lufthansa first class, Qatar Qsuites business, or another coveted experience, flying in (or near) the pointy end of the plane can seem like the pinnacle of this hobby. It can also be the best value for your hard-earned miles from a cents per mile perspective (SEE: The folly and fallacy of using miles for economy flights).
I’m not saying business or first class redemptions are wrong. Using miles in this way is a thrill. As part of our trip to Beijing and Hong Kong last year, my two older kids and I flew business class for our final long-haul back to San Francisco. But this is far from the norm for us. You’ll typically see us at the back of the bus with all the other families. My kids were fortunate enough that I had the necessary 150,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles on hand for our awards.
Burning that many was tough, since it was quite the stash. But we also still have a lot, which is why I was willing to jump. In general, economy is where it is at for family travel. Today I wanted to explore some of the best-value awards, with a focus on what is most feasible for traveling families.
Avios to Hawaii from the West Coast
This still reigns supreme for West Coast folks. A single card bonus can get you close to a vacation in Hawaii for a family of five. Assuming you can pick up the British Airways (or other Avios-earning) Visa with the 100,000-mile bonus and put the required $20,000 spend on it, you’ll be sitting on at least 120,000 Avios. Either transfer the last 10,000 miles from flexible points or spend that little bit more, and you can use the 130,000 Avios for 5 round-trip tickets on either Alaska or American to Hawaii from most West Coast hubs.
Tickets to Hawaii have been competitive lately, so using Chase Ultimate Rewards through the portal with your Chase Sapphire Reserve (or Preferred) card will often be the better option. But if you’re short (or protective) of your UR usage, Avios are a great mileage option.
Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles Domestic Awards
The amazing Miles & Smiles domestic award chart has been my latest fixation. I’ve written about how you can actually now book some awards online, and if that fails, calling Turkish Airlines to book tickets is a breeze. You can book a one-way domestic award for just 7,500 Miles & Smiles. This is far better than most other programs with a standard award chart. If you do much regional flying like I do, this is certainly an excellent deal.
But it gets better. Turkish Airlines considered Alaska and Hawaii to be domestic, so you can fly those places for just 7,500 miles one-way as well. Interested in business or first class domestically? You’re only looking at 12,500 miles. This is how much United charges for economy saver domestic awards in their own program. The power of Miles & Smiles cannot be understated.
As a Citi ThankYou transfer partner, your best best for accruing miles is by picking up the Citi ThankYou Premier, which is currently offering a 60,000-point sign-up bonus. This is enough for four domestic round-trip economy tickets. Again, that domestic requirement includes Alaska and Hawaii. Amazing? Yes.
Cathay Pacific Premium Economy Using Alaska miles
Had we not had enough miles on hand to fly in business, I probably would have opted to fly in premium economy with the kids on our Hong Kong to San Francisco flight. This is actually the cabin we flew from Beijing to Hong Kong, and I can truthfully say that it would be comfortable enough for a long-haul journey. With more spacious seats, more foot room, a footrest and significant recline, I might actually be able to get into a deep sleep on one of those flights.
Premium economy awards to Asia only cost 35,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles one-way, which is only a 5,000-mile premium over economy. Totally worth it. For a family of four, you’ll need 140,000 Alaska miles, which may seem like a lot. But with a little planning and focused spending, the average family could probably get there in 1-2 years. It used to be easy to pick up multiple Alaska Visa card offers, but BofA has been a lot more restrictive lately.
The other bonus of using MileagePlan to fly Cathay premium economy: free stopover in Hong Kong on a one-way award (assuming the current political climate improves). You get two destinations for the price of one.
Avianca LifeMiles Single-Zone U.S. Short-Haul Awards
This is a personal favorite of mine since we live in a remote area which is only served by United. If you cannot get your hands on any Turkish Miles & Smiles, LifeMiles may have to do. They are a bit more cumbersome, in my experience, mainly because you cannot relay on their phone agents to really help you with anything. They are also very customer unfriendly.
But if you’re willing to brave the waters, LifeMiles are a great option for domestic short-haul. With a three-zone U.S. award chart, you can fly intra-zone for just 7,500 miles. The U.S. West zone includes Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. It does not include Montana, which I find odd. You can check out all the charts here. Itineraries such as the following all fall within the single zone:
- Eugene to San Diego via San Francisco (~$250 r/t)
- Santa Rosa to Colorado Springs via Denver (~$350 r/t)
- Los Angeles to Jackson Hole nonstop (generally $400+ r/t)
- Seattle to Santa Fe via Denver (~$250 r/t)
All one-stop itineraries are perfectly legal and available for just 7,500 LifeMiles. However, I’ll warn you that the online search does not always show all the United availability. If you’re looking at some expensive short-haul tickets, consider looking for LifeMiles awards. You’ll also pay a $25 award fee on every award, whether one-way or round-trip, so factor that in as well.
One benefit to LifeMiles over other currencies is the fact that you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards into their miles in addition to Citi ThankYou points. Or consider the Avianca Vuela Visa issued by Banco Popular.
Delta Economy Flash Award Sales
Delta Airlines has impressed me at times with the frequency and quality of their award sales. It’s annoying to not know what things should cost at times, but the the other side of the coin is that some routes end up priced at rates much lower than the competition. We’ve seen sales where you can fly for as low as 10,000 miles on a domestic round-trip, and flights to Europe have hit as low as 24,000 miles round-trip. You can hardly fly one-way to Europe in most programs for so few miles.
This makes Delta miles an excellent choice for families that have some flexibility with date and location of travel. If you’re hoping to score saver seats at peak dates, I wouldn’t suggest Delta miles and their dynamic pricing. But in many other cases, you can come out ahead. A single card bonus of 70,000 miles could potentially get you round-trip tickets for five people, if you’re flying short-haul.
Ultimately, the best redemption is one that gets you where you want to go. If you’ve been saving for a Hawaii vacation for two years and can finally make it happen with American Airlines miles, go for it. It may not be one of the best-value redemptions out there in terms of the number of miles required per ticket. But if it is what you have to fly to Hawaii, it’s a good redemption.
If you’re looking for value, or points to accrue for future use, any of these could be quite useful, especially for domestic travel.